By Manisha Lakhe

night

As with any book of short stories, one tends to open a story and allow the writer to steer you into worlds you have not experienced. Mitra Phukan’s A Full Night’s Thievery takes us to Assam, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of her characters filled with music. But when those worlds are described in ways where Indian words like aanchal, punkha walas, Krishnasura tree, aalna, deuta intrude upon the senses, then the story comes second. It’s all ambience. Only ambience.

The book blurb promises that “music is a hard taskmaster” and you want to experience that. The bleeding fingers, the pain of missing a beat in front of an audience, the ecstasy of hitting the right notes and the loneliness of the riyaaz, we want to feel it all. But the characters don’t seem to be real. They’re given to rants (“The Choice”) where a Rudra Veena player is attempting to tell himself why he’s giving away his instrument. And after a couple of pages you wish the damned instrument would break to make him stop whining. If you’ve started with that story (since it’s the first in the book), then it sounds the death knell to the book, doesn’t it?

But if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the title story which is about a thief. And when you have trampled through pointless descriptions of characters in the little town who have nothing to do with the plot of the story, you realise that you saw the end coming a mile away. And who uses words like “delicious bits” for breasts? It’s practically Victorian.

The stories are charming, if you are unfamiliar with Indian writing. But if you have read works of regional authors translated into English, or Indian writers writing in English, you will realise that this book suffers the same fate. The descriptions seem to be written for non-Indians. Take the coconut seller in the train. His method of chopping the tender coconuts or how he cuts them after the “sweet” water has been consumed for the delicious “cream” seems to be utterly needless because Indians know what a tender coconut is and how to consume it.

By Anurima Chanda

wind-blows

It is interesting how every culture’s literary history almost always begins in verse – for they say verse comes easier to mankind than prose. It is maybe for this inherent nature in all of us that makes us, at least at some point of time in our lives, try to dabble in the art of writing poetry. However, not all of us have the energy to sustain that spirit. Not all of us are able to give birth to the poet in us. But those that do, truly know the joy that it brings to be able to express oneself in rhyme and the pain that it takes to get that rhyme right. What is also pleasantly surprising is how similar these ideas generated in the early stages of writing are to that of the other poets at a similar juncture of creativity. Similar but how beautifully different – different in the way that they then go on to form roots of their own to branch out in their creator’s essence. This is what Ashish Khetarpal’s debut book of poetry When the Wind Blows and Other Poems (2016) offers you – the freshness of the early stages of birth, the resonances it bears to the poetic genetic makeup of mankind and the promise of branching out to create its own unique type.

As the wonderfully written blurb at the back of the book tells you, the poems in this collection are like leaves of the fall; painted in different colours of poetic thought, waiting to spiral away to glory on the winds of the reader’s sighs. In these multicoloured leaves, one will find carefully plucked memories from the poetic mind. Memories of how poetry entered his life, how it made his life colourful, how those colours brought him love, how love took on a life of its own, how love left him heartbroken at times and how it consumed him at other times – snippets from the poet’s everyday life told with an unabashed honesty to the point of baring his vulnerable naked soul to his readers without being afraid of its risky consequences. These poems remind you of what it felt like in those early stages of musing when everything seems like a tale that should be told, when it is important that every tale is dressed with precision and care, and when poetic inspirations are to be celebrated rather than surreptitiously hidden between the lines. It is this very raw spirit of his poems that will enchant and make one sigh – sigh in remembrance of a youth gone by.

By Neeti Singh

love-of-pork

For the Love of Pork, 2016, by Goirick Brahmachari comes through as a collection of brilliant and ambitious verse that is intensely contemporary, thickly layered and imagistic, and reads like beat poetry as it interrogates on one hand the presence and forms of borders in daily life; and celebrates on the other hand the excesses of modern living with its new-found freedoms that thrill in the flouting of social taboos. Brahmachari, who belongs to a younger line of Indian poets writing in English, draws profusely from his readings and understanding of literature, history, cultural theory, culture and politics. His writing explores the matrix of socio-political and existential issues, as it negotiates at the same time, the paradox of acceptance and irreverence in the lives of the middle class. In terms of poetic style and content, Brahmachari’s is a strong and impressive voice, equipped with both the conviction and the courage that a poet needs to explore new pathways in poetic craft, experience, and creative expression.

Goirick Brahmachari, who is an economics research consultant settled in Delhi, hails from Silchar, Assam. This fact is amply reflected in For the Love of Pork, his first book of poems, which is a collection of forty-five poems that map the poet’s years at home, the pain of borders in the hilly terrain of Assam, and that strange sense of being away from home – free, footloose and available to cosmopolitan lifestyle issues far away in dynamic Delhi. As happens with most cities, the Silchar of his growing up years has decayed and is reduced now, to –

Stinking gutters

of hypocrisy and mediocrity.

Broken roads, of hope once,

of disgust now, ignored

through years of slumber

and laziness, and an age

of rage-less youth.

Your universities

do not speak. (18)

By Piya Srinivasan

exile

One thing we know about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, whether through her writings or hearsay, is that she doesn’t mince words. Her memoir follows this legacy. Exile is about the fight of a woman against the state, a commentary on India’s struggle to maintain its secular credentials, the rapidly diminishing arena of free expression, and the ugly effect of vote bank politics on her life. Her open attacks on religion, patriarchy and intolerance are distilled into a retelling of her seven-month ordeal in 2007 against the Indian state’s coercive mechanisms.

Nasrin has many epithets: former physician, humanist, human rights activist, proponent of freedom of expression and women’s rights, battler of fatwas. Forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994 after the religious furore caused by her book Lajja, she led a nomadic existence in Europe and America for a decade. Her repeated attempts to return to Bangladesh were rejected by the government. The last of her three-part memoir, Ka, published as Dwikhandito in West Bengal, was banned by the local government in 2003 for hurting Muslim religious sentiments. In 2004, she was granted a residency permit in India and made a home in Kolkata, the place closest to her homeland in language and culture.

Her narrative — through musings, letters, conversations, diary entries and newspaper reports – uncovers the grit and grime of politics. After an attack on her by religious ideologues linked to the political party AIMIM at the launch of her book Shodh in Hyderabad, a violent protest march by rabble rousers demanding her expulsion from Kolkata expedited the state government’s “Exit Taslima” mission.  She was subsequently put under house arrest on her return to Kolkata, for fear of communal disturbances over her presence. When asked to arrest the protesters, the Commissioner of Police refused, saying this was a “minority issue”. She offers this as proof of manufactured dissent by the state government to secure the Muslim vote bank.

She challenges Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was the chief minister at the time, on his studied silence over the Dwikhandito ban, approved by him after 25 prominent literary figures read the book and condemned it, clearly belying the Left Front’s progressive ideals. She condemns many of the city’s intellectuals and exposes the media-politics alliance through the instance of Anandabazar Patrika editor-in-chief Aveek Sarkar stalling her interview for the newspaper on the then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee’s behest, allegedly to appease fundamentalist factions in West Bengal.

Reviewed by P N Balji

singapore-my-country

When you talk about this book, you have to talk about two people: Asia’s first postmaster general, Bala Subramanion, and the writer, Nilanjana Sengupta.

The story of Subramanion, 94, is a throwback to a Singapore that doesn’t exist today. He grew up in a forgotten past when the British, Japanese, then the British and finally Singaporeans ruled the country. It is a grandfather’s war story that many must have heard their old folk talk about. Subramanion’s story is interwoven with those of his struggles in a country torn apart by incendiary politics, abject poverty and big power rivalry. A combination of luck and smart instincts saw him rising up the ranks to reach the very top of the job he chose to be in. That profession is fast disappearing in a familiar narrative of disruptive technology. Singapore, My Country is a useful documentation of not just how the ubiquitous the post office was at one time.

It was a place we went to not just to post letters and parcels but buy stamps, paste them
on cards and start the habit of saving money. That little effort spawned into what is today a part of our lives, the Post Office Savings Bank.

A few years ago, there was an effort to do away with POSB’s ATMs because of the high cost of maintaining them. The protests were loud and that move was scuppered. Unfortunately, the book has very little about how the establishment was out of touch with a population that was still rooted in an institution like the POSB.